Thursday, January 31, 2008

Moonset over the Mississippi

A cold clear January morning. I am out in the frozen marshes along the Mississippi River. There is not much in the way of cloud cover this day. The sky is full of stars and the moon hangs high in the west. There is a heavy frosted quality this morning.

There are several views of the bluffs that could be a great image with a sunrise over them. With no clouds I start looking west at the moon and and the river.

As the stars fade and the blue returns to the sky, I frame up the snow, grass, distant bluffs, and moon into the frame. I make an image. I wonder if the film will pick up any of the stars that I quickly losing in the blue morning sky.

The temps are cold but everything on the camera works perfectly, even at -10. I have had the camera on the tripod for about an hour and only made a couple of images. I see the light is getting brighter and I start to think about how to best capture the coming sunrise.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Lonely Pine

I was hiking along the bluffs of the Mississippi River and on a snowy day. The leaves have fallen and the branches are showing through.

On a hillside meadow I find a lone evergreen. Well, at least I think it is an evergreen. It has been sculpted by wind and snow into a shape that is more of like a Bonsai tree than a pine tree.

It's top was lopped off. The limbs were askew. The green boughs were pruned by old man winter. It was Bonsai.

I set up the tripod on the hillside and went about making the image. I decided to try both a shallow depth of field by photographing wide open at f/5.6 and then stopped down to f/32. The light table will tell which was better.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Black River Water

The braided streams of the Black River form a large area of bottomland when the river reaches the plain of the Mississippi. The many different waterways slip in and out of thick stands of trees, areas of marsh, and grasses.

I found one of the branches that had stretches of open water. Unlike the day on the Trempealeau River the sky was mostly clear one afternoon. I walked about a mile to find a spot where I had a view toward the setting sun across a long pool of open water.

I set up the tripod in about a foot of snow. To keep the camera bag as dry as possible I swept aside a 4'x4' area to sit it down. I hung my smaller bag from the tripod. To keep everything warm, I keep the bags zipped up. I make an image and wait and watch the light.

I had worried about how the camera and shutter would react to the cold but my batteries in the DSLR fare worse than the 4x5. In fact the 4s5 hardly seems impacted at all by the cold. I keep trying to remain conscious about holding my breath around the glass, but otherwise it is a normal "user experience" with the view camera.

The light in the sky brings a nice reflection to the water. I make another image, take a few digital snaps, and then slowly begin the take down process. I work slow and methodical and after packing up begin the walk back to the car and supper.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The River in Winter

The river in winter is as interesting as or more interesting than in summer. The snow, ice and monochrome palette of the winter needs something to offer some contrast. Any open water offers something. Most of the rivers here freeze solid, even the mighty Mississippi. The Trempealeau River usually freezes over (well it has been in the three winters I have visited the area). This year I find that it has a ribbon of water follows it’s course through the snow.

Add in the way the ice creates a rough edge and it is something to photograph.

I went out to the river for daybreak on Saturday. I had hopes for some color in the clouds that I might pick up in the river, but the sky was heavy overcast. I still thought the image was there and waited. The sky stayed gray. There was no color.

As light of morning rose I made a few images of the ribbon of a river in the world of winter. I am still not sure how the chromes will turn out but I like how the digital snapshot did. There might more potential in an image here than I first thought.

You may expect a frozen river in the winter in this part of the country but this time I found a river in winter.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Don't Breathe

When you are out in temps that start with zero or “-“ it is cold. That cold seeps into your toes and your camera. As you camera gets cold you have to be more careful about even simple things. Just one breath on a cold lens can mean one frosted over piece of glass and the end of your day.

When you work with large format you have to be methodical. In the cold you have to be double sure. I often think “don’t breathe” as I work with the camera. Sometimes I even fore go the dark cloth as a way to lessen a chance of breathing on the ground glass. Be smart and don’t do something stupid like breathe.

I was out walking on a frozen stretch of the Black River in the afternoon. It has been a cold week here in Wisconsin and we had temps that were biting cold at times. At daybreak they were talking about wind chills of -20 or colder. Even in the afternoon the temps had only climbed to single digits. The sun was breaking through some haze and the light had good strong qualities to it. I made some images from the rivers edge, but I liked the look of the frozen waterway so I walked out onto the river.

It was there I had another don’t breathe moment. The snow has blanketed the river but I know there is ice down there. I trudge along the curves of the river and feel confident that the cold had made it solid and thick. I search for another image. I stopped and set up the tripod at what might be a good location. Then I thought I heard a creak and groan. Is that the ice? Don’t breathe.

Then get moving.

I high tailed it to the river bank and suddenly the grass on the side looked a whole lot more inviting than the middle of the river. Ok, you can breathe again.

I work my way back down the river around trees and clumps of yellow grass. The river looks a lot better from the bank than I thought it did 30 minutes ago.

It is there I find this image and I set up low by the grass and include the sweep of the river the sun popping through the clouds. As I focus and tilt, I keep saying “don’t breathe”

Saturday, January 26, 2008

On the Frozen Marsh

Winters here in Wisconsin are cold and the freeze is deep. The lakes freeze. The Mississippi freezes. The marshes freeze too. That cold frozen marsh is very inviting.

I walk out onto the ice in search of cattails and reeds. I think they would make a great foreground for an image of Mount Trempealeau which rises beyond the refuge.

I see several clumps of reeds and pick on with some bent stalks. I go for a low angle image and bring out a wide angle lens to bring in the whole scene. Get in close, right on top of the reeds. Tilt the camera rear back to create extra depth of field. Add a grad filter to hold back the sky.

There it is-the reeds, the frozen marsh, the mountain and the gray sky. Nice on the ice.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Frozen Dawn

I drive out to the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge in the dark and start walking in temps that are somewhere south of zero.

I follow a path I know from prior mornings in the marsh. The snow lights the way even in the dark and I use no light. The air is crisp and biting. I know the location I am looking for and walk through the snow. Even in the dark I can tell no one has been this way in a while.

The marsh is frozen and I have it all to myself, even the geese have flown away.

I find the edge of the water. The brush marks the waterline but the water is frozen and snow blankets the marsh. The sky is dark gray, clouds are heavy with more snow.

I set up the tripod to frame the brush as the only thing not white in the foreground. I have to stamp down the snow to set the backpack down. I hang the small bag from the tripod. Then I slowly start to set up the big camera. I work slow and deliberate. I want to be careful about things like dropping anything in the snow or even breathing on the glass.

The clouds stay thick, there will be no golden dawn today. I work the brush snow and distant bluffs into the frame. On a sunny morning the sun would rise right in front of me, but not today. The sky will be gray.

I make an image and wait. Then I notice snow starting to collect on the camera. It is a small fine snow. I make sure to keep the lens clear. I make another image. The gray of dawn is upon me.

The cold gray frozen dawn.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Moonrise on Lake Pepin

The full moon was rising over Lake Pepin as I was taking the image of the lake posted yesterday. I thought there was enough balance in the sky and the lake to get them both in the image so I moved the camera around to give it a try.

There was a hint of color in the thin clouds. The lake was picking up that light. The moon was rising higher into the evening sky.

Lucky timing got me to the lake at the right moment.

Click. The image is done. I make this picture. I realize it is cold when you are standing in 6" of snow in wingtips (I am here for work after all) and not boots. Time to move.

As I pack up quickly I hope I can get the moonrise on the next night.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Back in the North Country

I am back in the north country. I am here for a couple of weeks of work. For some reason, no one at the office seems to want to go to Wisconsin in January. I thought it sounded fun. Flew into the Twin Cities yesterday and drove in from there.

The road from St. Paul is outstanding. This is the bluff country of the Mississippi. The bluffs are big, the trees are bare, and the river is frozen. I stop so often to take in the sights the trip stretches late into the afternoon. I arrive at Lake Pepin at twilight and decide to photograph the evening light across the frozen lake.

Lake Pepin is a natural lake on the mighty Miss. Charging out of the Wisconsin sand hill country (like Aldo Leopold wrote about in A Sand County Almanac)the Chippewa River flows into the Mississippi with such speed and load of sand that it has caused Lake Pepin to form. See the Chippewa brings in the sand faster than the Mississippi could take it away. The lake fills most of the steep sided valley and runs for dozens of miles back upstream from where the Chippewa pours in. The road winds along the edge of the bluff, is quite curvy and a fun/scenic drive.

The soft pastels of evening fill the sky and the lake is frozen solid. I line up an image that looks down the lake. The frozen lake fills the valley. The distant bluffs hem the lake in.

The cold crisp air heightens the senses. It is a lot colder than it was in Texas this morning.

I make the image. I look at the lake. I smile. I am back in the north country.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Trees

Plain old pine trees. Even more pines draw my attention. I am walking down the path to Yosemite Falls. The trees frame the falls. It is a sight where you never want to look anywhere else but the falls.

However if you turn your head you might see these yellow pines. The cannot be 30 yards off the path. Thousands of people walk right past them every day. You can probably count the people who see them on one hand.

I thought they had potential. Not to work into an image of the famous falls, but just as an image of trees.

I walked around and found a composition that framed several of them with a very yellowish one in the front. You could not see the falls and you could not see the path (nor people for that matter).

I looked at the upside down scene and saw nothing but trees and forest floor in the image. I made two images just to play with shallow and deep focus. The tourists walking past have no idea how great these trees look. They probably do not even notice me either, after all who has time for trees when a true wonder is just 300 yards away.

I packed up thinking trees, and I am they only one to see them today.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Forest and the Trees

They say sometimes you cannot see the forest because of the trees. For a photographer it is often the opposite-you cannot see the trees for the forest.

Yosemite may be famous for big granite walls, big sequoias, and big waterfalls, but it is also heavily forested. Pine trees are fairly common and there are alot of them(really throughout the mountain west). It is easy to just see them as another grove of trees and to keep driving or walking. The trick to making a great image of a forest is to bring out charasterics of trees.

This particular stand somehow drew my attention. There were some factors that could make an image. The light on the trees was directional. The background had a different quality of light. The grove stood alone at the edge of a meadow and the trees were spaced nicely had good lines. In the mid morning the sun had still not reached them and it all came together.

I wanted to make an image that only showed the base of the trunks so I went with a longer lens (210mm) and I photographed the grasses and the trunks only. Going on the idea that less is more I had the light, shapes, and composition to show these few trunks and just a hint of the background meadow and the granite wall beyond. I found the trees, I have a forest, I made an image.

Out of the forest I have just trees.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Getting Wet

Standing in the river is sometimes the best way to get an image of it. When you stand on the bank you can take a picture of a river but stand in it and you can make an image out of being in it.

I was walking along the Merced River as it runs through Yosemite Valley. I could see El Capitan in the morning light. I had done some images from the bank but wanted something taken right from the middle of the water.

Normally, I do not like to haul the tripod out into a river bed barefoot, but the low river levels had left several gravel bars across it. A few big steps took me out into the river to a spot water flowed around me and I could really frame up the big rock right from the middle.

And my shoes were still dry.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Seeing the Light

There is something about Yosemite and large format view cameras that just go together. Maybe that is the legacy of Ansel. Maybe it is because the rocks are so big.

One of my favorite images of Yosemite is not even by Ansel. It is of Ansel. There is a great photograph by Cedric Wright of Ansel up on top of a platform he had built on top of his car making an image with Half Dome in the background. Ansel is up there with tripod and an 8x10 (or maybe 11x14) is on it. It is a wonderful image that I really like as a photographer. Maybe it is because it shows us not Ansel's work, but AA at work.

After looking at the image and after looking at the amazing prints at the gallery, I thought it was just wrong to photograph Yosemite with anything less than the biggest camera you owned. I guess you could call that a "seeing the light" kind of moment.

Those are the Cathedral Rocks in the background of this image. They are big and impressive. The late afternoon light is bright across the valley. The rocks are side lit. Even on a mostly clear day they are still a "wow" sight. So I went out to the edge of a meadow and went to work to make an image.

Standing in a green meadow. Big rocks. Directional light. Using a big camera. Yep, that is what it is all about. I guess I do see the light.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


I was photographing in the early light along the Merced River in Yosemite. After spending the predawn at a famous overlook the light got very boring and flat from the clear sky. I needed to find a place I could photograph without the sky impacting the image.

I found a spot along the Merced River. The river was moving clear and fast. It was not very deep and many boulder and rocks were visible. The forest around me was still rather dark and I knew I could do some longer images here.

I was hoping for a chance at a long time exposure where the water became a blur. I framed a composition of rocks, river and the trees beyond. The light was flat and the sky was clear but in the deepness of Yosemite Valley it was still dark enough that it should work.

The images were long (stopping down to f/45) and adding a polarizer helped lengthen them more, I was taking 15 and 30 second exposures.

With that length of time I knew I could get some nice effects on film. I decided I wanted to get that into this image too, so I timed this longer exposure to coincide with me changing sheets in the 4x5. I started this picture, I am not in it, then I walked to the camera and stopped the exposure, changed sheets, and walked out. That left me as a ghost on this picture.

I really like it. The ghost of me taking pictures where the ghosts of great photographers roam.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

By the Light of the Moon

What is a photographer to do in cloudless weather? Well when you are in Yosemite and it is cloudless and there is a full moon you photograph at night!

I was met with sky that was way too clear and cloudless on this trip. California was in a drought and even the famed falls of Yosemite were just a trickle when they should be roaring.

I was hoping for dramatic sky, puffy clouds, and maybe a clearing storm. What I got was endless clear sky. However, with a full moon I went nocturnal, getting out at 3am and photographing the sights of Yosemite lit by a full moon. So for six mornings I was at all the major sights but instead of a crowd, I had them to myself. Me, the 4x5, and the starry sky.
Yes, I had Tunnel View to myself. If you have ever been to Yosemite you were probably at Tunnel View with 100 people and 40 of those had tripods. By going out at night I had it to myself. And Valley View, and El Capitan Meadow, and Yosemite Falls, and the bridge, etc. Being alone at a major site in as busy of a park as Yosemite is almost impossible, but go out at night and it is all yours.

I set up 15-20 minute exposures and the moon lit the rocks while the stars streaked across the sky. It was fun, the images look neat and I got to photograph without the crowds.

Here is one such night. Yosemite Falls are in the background beyond the meadow but the trickle they are barely register on film or sensor. I visited all the major view points and was lucky enough to make some neat images.

The weather gave me lemons, but with a full moon I made lemonade.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

In the house of Saint Ansel

Over the summer I spent a week in Yosemite. It was my fourth trip and it is a place that keeps drawing me back.

Every time I photograph here, I see the famous images Ansel made. John Muir may have saved Yosemite, but Ansel took it's fame to a whole new level with his photography. The Ansel Adams Gallery is still doing business in the park. By the way- this is as much of a must see stop as anything else in the park. Not only can you see the work of Ansel, but many other modern masters of the Sierra- Bill Neil, John Sexton, Alan Ross, and Mike Frye to name a few.

When I was in the park this summer I set about planning which icons I would photograph. High on my list was El Capitan. This huge wedge of granite dominates the front half of Yosemite valley and is a draw for climbers from around the world.

I photographed El Cap from several different locations. Each one seemingly already made famous by a great photograph (or three). That makes it difficult to be there, because every place I stopped I thought of how Ansel made this or that from here or of that rock. It also did not help that the sky was "severe clear" and the summer drought in California had already dried up most of the waterfalls by June. Still, this was Yosemite and I was not about to let things get in the way of being there with my camera.

One morning, I was down along the Merced River and could see El Cap rising above the river and the trees. It was already well on in the morning (at least for me). I normally do most of my photography in the twilight before the sun appears in the sky. One thing about Yosemite, though, is that it is so deep the light does not get into the valley for over an hour after sunrise. That was the case here. The light was just striking the east face of El Capitan and I knew I had to get an image.

It required a little bit of work and a wide angle lens. The mountain is so big you need a wide lens to get the river and the rock which towers above it. You also need a good filter to hold back the bright sky from the darker river area. It took a while and I made use of the view camera's ability of rise and the grad filter to keep the sky from blowing out. I took a color image but I already had the idea that this might be a good trip and location to do conversion to black and white.

After I made the image, I just stood there staring up at the big rock. It sure is impressive from any angle and I know why Ansel kept coming here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Years Day

New Years is a day full of rituals. My own personal one is to be out photographing at dawn every New Years day. I started several years ago and have been out on everyone since. It has become something I look forward to as much as any other aspect of the holiday.

I like the cold quiet of the dark waiting for the first sunlight on another year. It gives one pause to think back on the last year and look forward to the new one.

This morning was crisp and clear- cloudless in fact. I went down to where the Clear Fork and West Fork of the Trinity River meet at the edge of downtown Fort Worth. I hoped to get the city, the river reflections, the stars, and the glow of the coming morning. It was the dawn of a new year and I hoped to put it on film.

Standing on the levee as I sat up the camera I heard the bells of the courthouse chime six in the morning. I photographed in the dark and then in that first hint of day when a touch of blue barely creeps into the sky. I wonder what this year will bring. I move down the river to a different angle. Before I realize it the chimes strike seven. The sun is only minutes away. There is an orange glow on the eastern horizon. I photograph until sunrise and the first light of 2008 strike the buildings of the city.

The day starts. A new day. A new year.